Congressional Republican leaders and Clinton administration officials said they made progress last week in negotiations over battling balanced-budget proposals, but evidence of any progress was hidden behind partisan sniping.
Differences on restructuring of the Medicaid system and allowing Medicare beneficiaries to enroll in private plans featuring medical savings accounts were among the issues that stood in the way of a compromise.
But in almost-daily negotiations last week, top officials mostly dealt with broader issues, according to sources.
"As far as Medicare goes, the negotiations have been a laugh," said Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.). "They have had this confab*.*.*.*and they take turns with staff members going on for hours in a theoretical sense about academic matters."
President Clinton's most recent balanced-budget plan calls for $98 billion in Medicare savings and $38 billion in Medicaid savings over seven years, while the GOP leadership's most recent offer proposes seven-year savings of $202 billion from Medicare and $133 billion from Medicaid.
The shutdown of the federal government continued, meanwhile, with some essential healthcare employees at veterans hospitals working without pay for the third week (See story, this page).
Prodded partly by a telephone campaign organized by nurses from Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare facilities, the Senate passed a plan to send furloughed federal employees back to work and resume paying essential personnel.
The House later rejected that plan, although at the end of the week, it was preparing a bill that would resume pay to essential VA employees.
The Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs last week was resuming calls to freshman House Republicans who have blocked attempts to reopen the government and pay essential employees required to work since interim funding ran out Dec. 16, 1995.
Both sides charged that the other was responsible for the budget impasse.
"It is part of an explicit strategy to shut the government down to get their way on budget and tax issues," Clinton said.
"The president of the United States is as much to blame for the closure of the government as the Republicans, House or Senate," responded Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
Medicaid was likely to be one of the last issues resolved in the balanced-budget negotiations, sources said, because the GOP leadership wants federal Medicaid spending to be given to the state in lump sums called "block grants" with a limited growth rate, while Clinton wants to limit spending growth on a per-capita basis.
Congressional Democrats contend that allowing Medicare beneficiaries to enroll in private plans, including MSA-style plans, as called for in the GOP reform plans would destroy the Medicare system. But a Republican congressional aide said "it would be difficult to give in" on MSAs.